Desktop 3D printers: The latest and the greatest

Looking for a 3D printer? Find all of Computerworld’s recent 3D printer reviews in one place.

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Credit: Makerbot
Evaluating 3D printers

It wasn't that long ago that the concept of a 3D printer -- a desktop device that could print out figurines, machine parts and working toys -- was something out of a futuristic daydream. Well, the future is here, and 3D printers are as well.

Computerworld senior reporter Lucas Mearian is very familiar with the ins and outs of desktop 3D printing. He's tried out and reported on a wide range of printers, from very simple family devices to more sophisticated machines that would suit a small business or enterprise. 

What follows is a rundown of some of the reviews that Mearian has written evaluating a selection of recent 3D printers, including beginner devices costing under $300, professional systems priced at about $3,500, and several in-between.

In each slide, we present what he felt were the outstanding features of the printer, along with the results of his most challenging test: Building an intricate 5-in.-tall model of the Eiffel Tower. 

And if you'd like to read the full reviews -- and see the videos that Mearian made to accompany some of the articles -- we've linked to each. 

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Credit: IDG
Ultimaker 3

The high-end Ultimaker 3 is not one of those low-cost, simple 3D printers that you'd consider buying for your kids. This one is for the pros. "At virtually any 3D printer conference," says Mearian, "Ultimaker machines can be found on the exhibit floor being used by third-party service providers to demo their printable wares."

Outstanding features:

The Ultimaker 3 comes with two extruder heads; you can either use two filament colors or use one for build material and the other for support material. It handles a wide range of materials as well.

The printer provides "outstanding print resolution, anywhere from 20 to 200 microns," says Mearian. It lets you remotely monitor your print jobs via an onboard Wi-Fi camera, and you can print from a USB drive.

It comes with a heated glass build plate that offers proper adhesion and easy detachment, so you won't break your models trying to remove them from the printer.

Eiffel Tower test results:

"The two best words to describe the Ultimaker 3's printing," says Mearian, "are methodical and meticulous."

The build, he says, was "the best Eiffel Tower model I've ever printed on a fused deposition modeling (FDM) printer. Apart from a few stray filament stuffs on the edges that could be sanded or snipped clean, the model was nearly flawless."

However, you've got to have patience. "Watching the Ultimaker 3 print was excruciating; it felt like each layer was being carefully contemplated before being laid down."

Full review: Ultimaker 3 offers high-quality 3D print jobs -- s-l-o-w-l-y 

da vinci jr. 2.0 mix
Credit: Lucas Mearian/IPG
XYZprinting da Vinci Jr. 2.0 Mix

It's difficult to find a solid 3D printer that doesn't cost an arm and a leg; however, XYZprinting seems to have accomplished this with the latest iteration of its low-end printer, the da Vinci Jr. 2.0 Mix. The interesting thing about this printer isn't only the relative quality of its printing, but the fact that it can use two different colored filaments simultaneously to create interesting color mixes -- thus, the name.

Outstanding features:

The da Vinci Jr. 2.0 Mix uses a new dual-feed system to send two filaments to a single extruder module to create a print that either gradually changes color, creates separate layers of two colors or mixes two colors to create a third one.

It is also very simple to set up and use, with an automatic calibration system that, says Mearian, allows you to get going immediately without any manual calibration.

However, because the printer bed is not heated, there were adhesion difficulties, even following the manufacturer's suggestions on how to deal with the issue. As a result, some models detached badly.

Eiffel Tower test results:

Mearian programmed the printer to start with green filament at the bottom and gradually change to blue at the top. Strangely, the process came out reversed -- the Eiffel Tower was blue at the bottom and moved to green at the top. Still, it was a successful print, and although the latticework was a bit muddled, a railing around a pedestrian walkway, which is a difficult build, came out with impressive accuracy.

Full review: Da Vinci Jr. 2.0 Mix 3D printer produces good quality, multi-colored objects

makerbot
Credit: IDG
  • XYZprinting da Vinci Jr. 2.0 Mix 3D Printer

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MakerBot Replicator+

The MakerBot Replicator+, an upgrade of the company's flagship desktop 3D printer, fixed some major issues and upgraded some key aspects of its technology, resulting in improvements in speed and quality.

Outstanding features:

If you want a 3D printer that complements your décor, this might be the one. "As with past MakerBot Replicator desktop 3D printers," says Mearian, "this is one of the best-looking machines on the market." He also notes that it is well designed, including some great features such as an onboard camera with 640 x 480 resolution so you can watch the printing process.

The printer also has a sensor system that communicates with desktop and mobile apps to keep you informed about the status of a print.

Eiffel Tower test results: 

The MakerBot Replicator+ completed the Eiffel Tower model, but Mearian wasn't wowed by the results. "While the model was decent," he reports, "small details such as the tower's inner latticework and pedestrian walkways and handrails were far from accurate."

He tried again with another version of the Eiffel Tower, one that was about 30% larger than the original job, and it did somewhat better, but the detailed latticework was still poorly formed.

Full review: MakerBot Replicator+ 3D printer fixes some issues, but quality still lags

da vinci mini slide
Credit: IDG
XYZprinting da Vinci Mini

The da Vinci Mini, from XYZprinting, is one of the few low-cost consumer-level machines that is worth considering. According to Mearian, it is " a no-frills machine that's intuitive to use and able to produce mostly accurate, good-quality objects -- even multiple builds at the same time."

Outstanding features:

Mearian says that the da Vinci Mini comes with several features often associated with more expensive printers, including embedded Wi-Fi (so files can be transmitted from computers to the machine) and onboard data storage. All functions are controlled remotely from a connected computer using the company's software.

At its relatively low price, it's natural that the Mini should have some limitations -- for example, it can use only PLA filament in the standard 1.75mm diameter. However, XYZprinting requires the use of its filament spools and no other -- the company told Mearian that the reason is to match the correct temperatures to the filament.

Mearian doesn't buy that explanation, but he adds that "the da Vinci Mini does boast impressive resolution." The resolution can be adjusted from 0.1mm through 0.4mm.

Eiffel Tower test results:

The Eiffel Tower model was built quickly but not well; it "did accomplish the tower but with so many printing errors that it came out missing scaffolding sections and with a good deal of disarrayed filament." However, Mearian adds that, "While this machine may not be able to replicate the most intricate of details on a build, it gets most right, and that's impressive for a sub-$300 printer."

Full review:  The da Vinci Mini leads as a low-cost 3D printer 

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Credit: IDG
New Matter MOD-t

When the New Matter MOD-t came out in the spring of 2016, it was the result of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign. This minimalist 3D printer is truly plug-and-play, offers Wi-Fi connectivity, and is quiet enough for most homes.

Outstanding features:

The printer has an all-white, contemporary look and is so simple to set up that it's a great device for a newbie. But Mearian says that he found the build platform the most impressive part of the printer: "The platform isn't attached to anything. You simply lay it atop a couple of x- and y-axis gear rods, and you're done." And its plastic cover slides off and bends to let you remove printed objects, eliminating the need to scrape them off.

The MOD-t uses 1.75mm PLA filament and can handle as fine as a .05mm layer height, both of which are standard for low-end printers. The only control on the device is a single start/stop button that can be also used to pause a print job.

But what is really unusual, Mearian says, is that it uses a browser-based interface to connect users to the company's 3D printing software and marketplace. You upload the file, begin the print job, and then unplug the printer from your computer.

Eiffel Tower test results:

Mearian found the software to be slow and not very user-friendly. The MOD-t did a very good job with some of the company's designs, but when it came to the test Eiffel Tower, Mearian says, it failed. "The extruder was unable to create the intricate scaffolding, and it went off track about halfway through the build, leaving me with a spaghetti mess of filament."

Full review: New Matter’s MOD-t 3D printer is ingeniously simple (with video)

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Credit: IDG
CraftUnique CraftBot Plus

The first CraftBot 3D printer received rave reviews out of the gate; this second-generation version -- called, appropriately, the CraftBot Plus -- offers some interesting tweaks.

Outstanding features:

The CraftBot Plus can use PLA, ABS and HIPS filament; and will use the standard 1.75mm filament from any manufacturer.

Mearian reports that the machine looked and felt sturdy with no unnecessary frills; it was also simple to set up. It has an impressive 2.8-in. LCD color touchscreen which uses both images and descriptions to help with navigation; you use it to load/unload filament and raise/lower/level/pre-heat the print bed, among other functions.

The software was in beta when the printer was tested. Mearian found it refreshingly easy to use while it offered some sophisticated tools. For example, Expert mode enables fine adjustments to a print job, such as choosing layer thickness from 10 to 200 microns.

Best of all Mearian says, the speed with which the software slices objects (i.e., turns them into multi-layered models for printing) is stunning. And it is very quiet.

 Eiffel Tower test results:

Mearian tried building the tower in both .1mm- and .2mm-thick layers; the former produced a completed model that was unable to replicate some of the finer details, but the latter offered a model with decent accuracy.

Full review: The CraftBot Plus is a 3D printer worth having (+ video)

da vinci pro2
Credit: IDG
  • CraftBot Plus Desktop 3D Printer - Anthracite Gray

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XYZprinting da Vinci 1.0 Pro

XYZprinting sells some of the lowest priced 3D printers on the market; the da Vinci 1.0 Pro was touted as being positioned for, as the name indicated, professional use.

Outstanding features:

This isn't a small printer -- Mearian reports that, at 18.4 x 22 x 20 in., the printer "is going to devour your desktop space." However, that also means you can build larger items. It is enclosed in an attractive plastic case to reduce the noise and smell of the melting plastic.

The printer uses both ABS and PLA filament from any source, and because it lets you adjust the temperature settings for the extruder nozzle and print bed, it can use polymers of varying consistencies.

While the da Vinci Pro has a heated print bed, which helps in adherence, it was difficult to detach the printed objects.

One particularly cool feature, Mearian says, is that you can change out the 3D printer head for an optional laser engraver, allowing you to emboss objects.

Eiffel Tower test results:

Unfortunately, although it did produce a number of other models satisfactorily, the da Vinci Pro was completely unable to complete the task of building the Eiffel Tower model.

Full review: The da Vinci 1.0 Pro 3D printer reaches for the higher end